lauantai 3. marraskuuta 2012

Guest blogger Alyson Bailes: A comment from Reykjavik

I remember asking an excellent Finnish defence expert in 2007 what he thought about Iceland's defence problems, and he said 'Oh, have the Americans left?'  In fact, the USA had unilaterally withdrawn all its armed forces from Iceland in 2006, triggering the largest crisis for defence policy since Iceland joined NATO in 1949. Lack of information on such a matter in Finland is, unfortunately, not untypical and it goes both ways.  If only Icelanders had known more about Finland's experiences and strategic approach, they would surely have made a better job of avoiding or at least managing their recent financial crash.

So how does the air surveillance issue look from Iceland? The first point to understand is that since breaking away from Denmark in 1944, Iceland has never been able to defend its own sea and air space. The nation was united in deciding not to have armed forces, but even if they had set up an army, a population of just 300,000 could never have afforded a hi-tech, combat-ready air force and navy.  (Malta with 400,000 people, for instance,  has no warships or warplanes at all.)

From 1949 to 2006, US forces met all Iceland's defence needs on the basis of a bilateral defence agreement (signed 1951) and also on behalf of NATO.  Aside from air defence monitoring and patrolling they also looked after non-military search and rescue.  Iceland itself only needed a couple of patrol boats for the coastguard and a couple of helicopters, and that is still pretty much what it has today. In practice, the coastguard ships are often away from home carrying out international duties such as patrolling for the Schengen regime.

When the US walked out in 2006, Icelandic civilians were able to take over the operation of the ground-based air defence radars. For actual patrolling both by land and sea they had to look to the help of their neighbours, initially Norway and Denmark, and then to a new arrangement with NATO as a whole.  Under the latter, NATO countries take turns to make short visits to Iceland to carry out patrolling and policing exercises.  A multilateral NATO exercise, sometimes including the US, is held in Iceland every autumn.

It is important to grasp, however, that all these new activities are exercises: designed among other things to give partners familiarity with Icelandic conditions and with working with each other, and also to show solidarity with Iceland as an ally and friend.  At all times, should a warlike incident start eg with a deliberate hostile intrusion into Icelandic airspace, it is the duty of Norwegian planes (under NATO plans) to react, with backup initially from the UK.

The idea that Finland and Sweden might also help with Icelandic air surveillance was put forward as proposal no. 3 in Thorvald Stoltenberg's report of  February 2009, commissioned by the five Nordic Foreign Ministers, on the future of Nordic security and defence cooperation.   Stoltenberg himself saw it as closely connected with his other proposals for cooperative Nordic maritime surveillance in the High North and for a coordinated maritime response force.

The motive behind this set of proposals was threefold, even if not fully spelled out in Stoltenberg's text.  First came the observation that small, defenceless Iceland occupied an important geographic position.  Second was the likelihood that the Arctic would become more important for all Nordics, also as a source of potential economic gain, as the ice melted: so it would be useful for them all to familiarize themselves with and establish a visible stake in the Icelandic gateway. Such action should make clear to other players that Norden had an opinion in the matter, and that Arctic developments ought to be handled with respect for Nordic values.  

Thirdly, while Nordic defence cooperation was fashionable in 2009 and developing fast, it had really only involved Sweden, Norway and Finland and was over-focussed on armament projects plus peacekeeping.  Denmark typically stayed out and Iceland was excluded by definition from defence-industrial and military discussions. Finding other activities where Iceland would be strongly involved, if only as 'customer', was a way of making cooperation more genuinely 'Nordic' and ensuring it would better reflect all five states' agendas. This concept of 'extension to Iceland' fitted the air patrols idea very exactly, since Norway, Sweden and Finland were already coordinating such air activities for their own needs.

It should be no secret that during the Stoltenberg process, Icelandic experts were keenest of all to get the air surveillance proposal included. While agreeing with Stoltenberg's reasoning, they also saw it as a further step in diversifying and reinforcing their new security solutions to deal with the US absence.  Further, the whole idea of Nordic Cooperation was and has always been popular across the whole Icelandic political spectrum.

Then why did Steingrimur Sigfússon - representing Iceland at foreign minister level in Helsinki this week since Össur Skarphéðinsson's was sick - express doubts about the need for air surveillance? This has nothing to do with the Nordic dimension but with the specific politics of the air defence issue here.  The Left Greens have opposed NATO and the US presence ever since the 1940s, and when the Americans withdrew in 2006 they believed Iceland should seize the chance to halt all defence activity. They complained that the governments in office took steps to find new air defence solutions without objectively studying what threats actually existed. This is still the Left Green position and it is what Steingrimur presumably felt he must express, as leader of that Party.

Here we might add that the Left Greens have support from 12% of the Icelandic electorate according to latest polls. Iceland's Prime Minister, a Social Democrat, firmly welcomed the Swedish/Finnish decision and it is reported only in positive terms on the Icelandic MFA website.

The Icelandic press has made little of the whole story, including the Finnish debate, and it is not my job to comment on the latter. But one more point is worth making from the Icelandic side.

Iceland worked hard to get the 'solidarity declaration' adopted by all five Nordic States in April 2011, promising this country concerted help (not excluding military assets) in the case of a major non-war disaster.  It worked equally hard to get the recent Arctic Council agreement, now legally binding, on mutual assistance (not excluding military assets) in Arctic search and rescue tasks. Finland and Sweden are fully part of both those agreements. As seen from Reykjavik, by joining in occasional air surveillance patrols – which may also help in monitoring civil emergencies, climate shifts, and pollution – the Finnish and Swedish forces would also be practising for these two other tasks and sending a signal that they take them seriously. That is a lot of added value to put at risk, should the present Finnish difficlty not be overcome.

Alyson Bailes, University of Iceland

3 kommenttia:

  1. Interesting to get a viewpoint from Iceland. Aino Friman had an interesting comment in Hiski's blog entry about air surveillance that Iceland maybe wants to get some distance to NATO. Is it only the Left Green party or is there a wider support for this?

  2. Here is a majority in Iceland, if mostly silent, for staying in NATO and this is less controversial since the change of US Administration. Indeed NATO is seen by many in the centre of the political spectrum as being preferable to a bilateral, and very asymmetrical, dependence on the USA.

  3. Appreciate the answer. Thanks! Maybe one more thing to think about while waiting for US presidential election results.


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